The BFI’s initiative to issue sparkling new prints of classic films continues with Went the Day Well, the 1942 Ealing Studios propaganda film directed by Brazilian-born Alberto Cavalcanti. Having been listed in Channel 4’s poll of 100 Greatest War Films, its appearance on dual-format DVD and Blu-ray is an opportunity to reassess it – although happily its inclusion in the list is more than justified. This is efficient, muscular film-making telling a story which zips along with strong characterisations and an underlying slyness which attacks the stultified society of the small English village.
Went The Day Well deals with a fifth column pre-invasion attack by German paratoopers on the peaceful village of Bramley End and dramatises the reaction of the villagers to the insurgency. It draws on a cross-section of village society to populate this story with the squire and the vicar, the land girls and local grocers and even the local poacher given roles to play. Propaganda naturally deals in stereotypes, in simplifying drama and appealing to the audience’s baser responses – and Went the Day Well skilfully manipulates its audience, drawing the battle lines deftly and exploiting reversal after reversal before finally releasing our sense of tension in multiple threnodies of violence. It’s the violence that shocks, even with the perspective of 60 years. The Germans murder with the kind of cool efficiency their stereotype demands – and whilst this is shocking only by proxy, as if placing oneself in the mind of a viewer in 1942, it is the fact that the villagers kill with such alacrity that is startling.
But really, 1942 was a far more violent time than we live in now. Many people in the cinema audiences of the day would have seen action in Europe or North Africa, many might have been evacuated from the beaches of Dunkirk, most would have either experienced the terror of being bombed in their homes and seen its horrific consequences or experienced them second-hand. Death, and more specifically violent death, would have been something with which they were all too well-acquainted. There would also have been, of course, the expectation of the country as a whole that should the Germans invade (an eventuality which had by 1942, admittedly, faded) it was understood that everyone would “do their bit” and if that meant sticking a German paratrooper in the ribs with his own bayonet, then that was not just perfectly acceptable, it was the action of a hero.
Went the Day Well records this distortion in the British mental landscape but it also, in a curious pre-figuring of Orwell’s doublethink, presents the Anglican idyll of that Whitsun weekend as having been preserved. Mervyn Johns, at the start of the film, introduces us to the graves of the Nazi soldiers and the villagers buried side by side in the graveyard of Bramley End’s 13th century church. The battle which we are about to see has taken place, it has been won and things have returned to normal. The notion that violence is itself corrosive, causes irreparable damage and alters consciences to their detriment is far too modern for Bramley End. History, of course, tells us that it was not too modern for postwar Britain.
We also have 3 copies of this classic British war film to give away on Blu Ray thanks to our friends at Optimum Home Entertainment. To stand a chance of winning just tell us the name of the famous London studio that produced this film. Answers to: firstname.lastname@example.org